Recent history will raise the stakes for the Nationals on Thursday night, when they gather at Nationals Park for Game 5 of the National League Division Series. They will face the Los Angeles Dodgers one last time, with the winner advancing to meet the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS. For the Nationals, it carries even more weight than that. The result could either change how prior disappointments are viewed or reinforce the worst labels affixed to the franchise.
Beating the Dodgers will make 2012’s collapse and 2014’s impotency sting less – it would make them feel like rites of passage, part of a quest. The pain from 2012 and the frustration from 2014 would be exorcised, or at least mitigated. Losing would make those truncated playoff runs feel of a piece: It would feel like the Nationals lost because that’s what they do in October. It’s the difference between never discussing the Strasburg Shutdown again or hearing refreshed charges of arrogance. It’s a breakthrough or an ingrained, unwanted identity. The Nationals have the opportunity to reshape an era of Washington baseball and redefine the franchise’s reputation within the sport.
Since the Nationals ascended into annual contention in 2012, they have won 458 games, more than any team in Major League Baseball except the St. Louis Cardinals, and three division titles. Their regular-season success is an accomplishment unto itself, worthy of celebration, verification of a thriving franchise able to convert and claim thousands of new followers. The franchise seemed broken last season, when the final year of manager Matt Williams’s tenure spiraled and hiring his replacement momentarily turned into an embarrassment. Their sudden, 95-win rebound testifies to a strong foundation and the influence of Williams’s successor, Dusty Baker.
But their postseason failure also must be reckoned with. The playoffs require the navigation of both stellar opponents and small-sample randomness. It also holds organizations under the harshest light, a compressed stress test. The Nationals have built something wonderful, but what does it say if it keeps getting knocked down every other October?
It’s true that the 2016 NLDS feels different, has been different. In 2012, the Nationals were overwhelmed by the Cardinals in two losses and they wilted, infamously, in the last. In 2014, they authored one panicked, impatient at-bat after another and lost their composure; their manager and second baseman were ejected in extra innings of a home playoff game.
This year, the Nationals have outscored the Dodgers, 21-15, with the top of their order applying constant pressure. Twice, they mounted comebacks against Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in the world. Trea Turner is a force unlike anything they’ve had at the top of their lineup. Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy have formed a gauntlet of professional at-bats. Their bullpen allowed the Dodgers to break a tie Wednesday, but it has otherwise been flawless and has not squandered a lead. It’s been an even series, but the Nationals are probably ahead on points on most of the judges’ cards.
Their performance has allowed them to head into the decisive game in an advantageous position. No matter what happened Tuesday, the Nationals were going to fly home in good shape. Either they would close out the series, or they would send their ace to the mound in their own ballpark against a historically fragile starter on short rest (Rich Hill), a 20-year-old making his playoff debut (Julio Urias) and a worn Dodgers bullpen. They finished 50-31 at Nationals Park this season, and the Dodgers went 38-43 on the road. By winning Game 3 and forcing Los Angeles to use Kershaw on short rest, they ensured an edge.
But, man: A good situation to win any one baseball game equates to about a 60-40 proposition, and the Nationals could have stolen the series right then and there in Game 4. They had the Dodgers on the ropes after a three-run comeback in the seventh inning, mounted against Kershaw and completed against the bullpen. They had other chances to control Game 3, too.
Small moments grow over the course of a game, especially in the playoffs. In the third inning, starter Joe Ross faced Justin Turner with two outs and Kershaw on second. One more out, and Ross would maintain a tied game, keep his pitch count at a manageable number and negate Kershaw’s leadoff double.
Turner flared a soft liner to left-center field. The ball hung up for either left fielder Jayson Werth or center fielder Trea Turner to catch it. Maybe Turner called off Werth, and his shaky route to the ball cost him the catch. Maybe Werth should have taken charge with such an inexperienced outfielder. Doesn’t matter: That ball needed to be caught.
When it fell in, Kershaw scored and the Dodgers rallied. Ross walked the next two batters, then hit Joc Pederson to force in a run, giving the Dodgers a 4-2 lead and knocking Ross out of the game. The ripples lasted all game, beyond falling behind by two runs. Baker had to bring a lefty, Oliver Perez, in earlier than he wanted, preventing him from using him to match up later in the game.
Baker has been fantastic running his bullpen all series, but he might have rolled two choices around in his head on the flight home, two cases in which he may have pulled a pitcher one batter too late.
The first came when Ross faced Pederson. The Dodgers are an extreme left-handed team, and perhaps no hitter exemplifies it better than Pederson. He hit .269 with a .918 OPS against right-handers this season, but against lefties Pederson batted .125. If the Nationals made a list of situations to avoid before the series, one of them would have been Pederson facing a rattled, fatiguing right-hander with the bases loaded.
But Baker stayed with Ross as Perez heated up in the bullpen. He was wary of dipping into his bullpen so soon, and he also worried the Dodgers could simply counter with right-handed Howie Kendrick to Perez, a matchup he wanted to avoid. Whether it was an optimal choice, it was sound reasoning. It backfired when Ross hit Pederson with a pitch, and Baker had to bring in Perez anyway, with the score 4-2.
The winning run crossed on another tough call. In the eighth, Blake Treinen had hit Andrew Toles and yielded a single on a weak grounder by Andre Ethier with two outs. Left-hander Sammy Solis warmed in the bullpen, but Baker stuck with Treinen to face left-handed Chase Utley. Again, Baker wanted to avoid Kendrick facing a lefty. He also preferred to rest Solis, who had pitched the past two games – Solis appeared three straight games once all season, back on July 27, 28 and 29.
Again, it wasn’t necessarily the wrong call, but it didn’t work. After Treinen got Utley into a 1-2 count, Utley whacked an RBI single through the middle, and the Dodgers’ go-ahead run score.
So now the Nationals fly back to Washington, not to prepare for the Cubs but to play a game that will do nothing less than help define an era. Is it fair for one game to distill so much? Fairness is irrelevant. The Nationals have shown how far they have advanced in the playoff crucible. They have been the better team this series, if barely. It will mean something only if they push through into the next round. They’re good enough. They have to do it.